When India ruled hockey

While participation at The Games has been hailed in itself as assuring an athlete a place in the sporting pantheon, there are some nations that have raised the bar with their dominance of certain sporting disciplines over the years.

Four players of the Indian hockey team, including Dhyan Chand (bottom right), that won the Olympic gold medal in Berlin in 1936, peering out of a train window at Liverpool Street Station, London.   -  getty images

Ever since Pierre de Coubertin laid the foundations of establishing international understanding through the medium of sports in 1896, the quadrennial spectacle of the Olympics has been the ultimate peak of participation and achievement for every sportsperson on earth. Regardless of gender, race, colour or nationality, the Olympics have seen, over the years, men and women of exceptional skills and strength go past the known limits of human excellence.

While participation at The Games has been hailed in itself as assuring an athlete a place in the sporting pantheon, there are some nations that have raised the bar with their dominance of certain sporting disciplines over the years. These are the countries that come to mind every time a particular sport is mentioned; these are the performances dreams are made of. For an extravaganza that can overwhelm the best in the business, the consistent success of certain nations remains the holy grail.

Field hockey: (India)

With eight gold medals, India at the Olympics was, and remains, synonymous with hockey. Despite a lack of achievement on the biggest stage since 1980 in Moscow — when it won its last title — Indian hockey remains the gold standard to measure success for most teams.

The legends and anecdotes associated with the team’s dominance are aplenty and the names that have graced the team sheets — Dhyan Chand, Roop Singh, Balbir Singh Dosanjh, Mohd. Shahid — have retained their awe over the years. The romance of the sport in India is such that, despite not being officially decreed so, it is considered the de-facto national game of the country.

The anecdotes span both myth and reality. It may be true that he refused a field marshal post in Hitler’s army, but no one can confirm whether Dhyan Chand’s stick was broken by the Germans trying to figure out his amazing ball control. No one has been able to find his legendary four-armed, stick-holding statue in Vienna either.

Technically, independent India has won a total of eight medals, including five gold, one silver and two bronze. The other three golds (1928, 32 and 36) came under British rule even though the colonial masters fielded “Team India” that had participation from both Indians and the British. That was because the Indian Olympic Association had come into existence in 1927 and was responsible for fielding the national team.

However, these three medals were instrumental in bringing focus on the exquisite skill-set of the Indians, putting India and hockey on the world sports map where it has remained since then. Interestingly, it is officially the national sport in neighbouring Pakistan, which also boasts of eight medals since independence — three gold and silver each and two bronze. Germany is the other team with as many medals even though India’s five gold medals puts it right on the top of the heap.

Basketball: (USA)

Basketball competitors at the Olympics can be divided into two groups — the United States of America, and everybody else. The most powerful nation in the world is also the undisputed leader and a powerhouse on the basketball courts, ruling the sport without a challenger for long. The USA men have won 14 of the 17 editions they have participated in so far, including an incredible seven consecutive titles (1936-68) without dropping a single game.

The most famous of those wins, of course, remains in 1992, when professional NBA players were allowed to participate in the Olympics — till then only for amateurs — for the first time ever. The Dream Team, as it was called, had names on the roster reading Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Scottie Pippen, among others. It steamrolled every opposition and its 44-point win in the final, without taking a time-out, is yet to be equalled, leave alone overhauled.

USA’s dominance can be gauged from the fact that of the 18 editions that have featured basketball, the Americans did not win gold in only three — with the 1972 Munich defeat to the Soviet Union being so controversial the US players refused to collect their silver medals — while boycotting the 1980 edition in Moscow.

ÚSA’s domination has been under threat in recent times, however, with Argentina defeating it in 2008 and its 107-100 victory in 2012 against Spain, led by Pau Gasol, the closest yet in terms of points. The increasing number of overseas players in the NBA has helped national teams from those countries to bridge the gap with US, but the country remains head and shoulders above the rest.

The American women aren’t far behind, winning seven of their nine participations, including five in a row — that’s 40 consecutive games without a loss — since the current 12-team format came into effect in 1996. In fact, if anything, the women have been far more dominant than their male counterparts, suffering their last Olympics defeat way back in 1992, when they lost in the semifinals.

The USA is one of only four teams to win the basketball title at the Olympics among the men, while its women share the honour only with the erstwhile Soviet Union, which is a measure of their overwhelming dominance. Both go to the Rio Games as defending champions.

Football

For the most popular sport in the world, the Olympics isn’t exactly the pinnacle of sporting excellence, unlike other games. That honour remains with the World Cup. Given the continued insistence from FIFA on keeping the Olympics for amateurs despite the International Olympic Committee allowing professionals since 1984, countries are allowed to field only three players of the age of 23. In addition, Great Britain hasn’t fielded a team since 1972 — barring 2012 as a one-off arrangement since London was the host — because its constituent nations Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland compete everywhere else as independent teams and are reluctant to be clubbed together in one team.

As such, no single nation can be said to have dominated football at the Olympics though the control has shifted among continents. East European teams including Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Soviet Union and East Germany were most often among the medals till the early 1980s since even their biggest stars were state-funded and deemed amateurs, allowing them to field the strongest squads. Post that, Africa and South America have ruled with 12 of the 15 medals at stake since 1996 divided among the two continents, with Mexico being the defending champion.